The Castle Behind Thorns, by Merrie Haskell (Katherine Tegen Books, upper middle grade, May 2014)--was an utter winner. I realized I had read it in a literal single sitting, as I found to my cost when I tried to move again.
Here is what I liked, and what you might like too.
The Castle Behind Thorns is a Sleeping Beauty re-imagining, set in a village in medieval France. Just outside this village is the castle of the Boisblanc family, sundered and riven a generation ago, surrounded by a wall of impenetrable thorns.
--This is good because there isn't a lot of really good historical fantasy for kids in general, and because medieval France has not been done to death as a fantasy setting; I can't think of a single other fantasy novel in which Joan of Arc is mentioned. This is also good because Sleeping Beauty is a fine story to re-imagine, as it can be done so many different ways. The Sundering is awfully cool too--everything in the castle, and the castle itself, has been magically rent asunder.
The main character, a boy nicknamed Sand (short for Alexander), mysteriously awakens one morning to find himself inside the Sundered Castle. He is the smith's son, and a handy, crafty sort of boy who instead of falling into dark despair because he is trapped in a ruined castle starts trying to bring order to its chaos (though he is no Pollyanna--he is plenty unhappy about his situation).
--Sand is a great character, and I loved the crafty side of things. I also loved the descriptions of all the broken things that needed fixing! I also love how this makes the point that when you are in a situation that is utterly awful, the best thing to do is to find the things that you can fix, and fix them. A good life lesson, without being at all preachy.
The second main character is a girl who has a really interesting story arc and a fine backstory and, though not as sympathetic as Sand, was someone who I liked reading about.
--the way she is introduced to the story was fascinating and I'm not saying any more except that there is some gender subversiveness at work that is perhaps a smidge at odds with the reality of medieval France but perhaps not (it is not my area of academic strength).
Obviously there is magic at work, what with the Sundering, and the thorns, and all...but what's really cool here is that it is the sort of magic that you might find in a medieval Christian fantasy France (think cults of saints).
--this is totally cool because goodness knows the people of the middle ages believed in lots of magical and miraculous things that were very real to them, and it was such a fun, refreshing change to see this world-view being used in a fantasy novel.
Here's what I especially, personally liked (though other readers might find it a negative thing)--nothing much Happened, except towards the end. The story relies heavily on descriptions, and character interactions, and some backstory, and this is of course reasonable given that everything happens behind the thorns, with a cast of two young teens isolated from the world (quickly interupting myself to note that this is middle grade. This is not a fairy tale Blue Lagoon).
I find it very pleasant (especially when I am frazzled, as I was when I read this one) to curl up with a book about people puttering around, trying to get by and find solutions to problems without too much actual conflict. (And when I am too tired to clean my own house I like to read about other people cleaning their magical castles/English cottages/19th-century abandoned mansions, etc.). I think, though, that the magic of the enchanted castle is strong enough to hold the attention of most of the target audience, especially those who have not yet become so accustomed to barrages of fast and furious action that they can't read anything else.
So in any event, do not let the fact that I did not find this "fast-paced" and "action-packed" stop you from giving it to handy boys!
(My own 11-year-old boy is currently re-reading Laini Taylor's fairy books, Blackbringer and Silksinger, and was not willing to drop those to try this one, so I am lacking his Target Audience perspective, which I find slightly annoying. Because what's the point of having a reading child if he can't help you with your blog posts? But I think he would like it....)